YouTube blocks access to Russian state-controlled media amid EU states’ call for action

Given the war in the East, and recent riots in the United States, the quality of the information ecosystem has become central. Media leaders could seize industrial, policy and budget opportunities, beyond the basic democracy principles, with a view to media resilience, write Pedro Ortún Silvan and Christophe Leclercq. Photo: Shutterstock, AlexLMX

YouTube on Tuesday (1 March) blocked accounts connected to Russian state-controlled RT and Sputnik and removed thousands of videos following calls to curb the spread of pro-Kremlin propaganda on social media after Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine.

Wide-ranging EU sanctions have seen Russian media blacklisted across the block with access to their sites barred and cable providers taking Russian channels off air. But some stakeholders and lawmakers have taken it a step further and demanded social media giants do their bit to stem the flow of disinformation.

YouTube responded to the calls by blocking accounts and removing hundreds of channels and thousands of videos while “remaining vigilant for violative misinformation.”

“It’ll take time for our systems to fully ramp up. Our teams continue to monitor the situation around the clock to take swift action,” a YouTube spokesperson said in a statement.

Calls to stem the flow

On Sunday, the Ukrainian government issued a call for Mark Zuckerberg to block access to Facebook and Instagram in Russia and ban several “Russian propaganda channels”.

Mykhailo Fedorov, Vice Prime Minister of Ukraine and Minister of Digital Transformation also urged Google to step up. ”Meta is stepping up to shut down Russian lies. When will YouTube? We are calling on Google to ‘deplatform’ Russian state media in the strongest possible terms,” he tweeted on Monday.

Then in an open letter sent on the same day, the prime ministers of Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and Poland called on Meta, Twitter, Google and YouTube to take more decisive action regarding Russia’s information war. 

Lithuania’s prime minister, Ingrida Šimonytė, who initiated the letter, said on Monday (28 February) that “we addressed the big social media companies because of disinformation that is being spread through these platforms, regardless if it is Meta, Twitter or YouTube.”

The letter highlights that Russia’s war of aggression in Ukraine is being followed by “a massive disinformation campaign to justify to the world and its own people its war of aggression and to hide the crimes that are being committed in its course”.

EU obligations

All the platforms mentioned in the letter are signatories to the EU’s Code of Practice on Disinformation as of 2018.

While the code is a voluntary agreement to self-regulate in fighting disinformation, signing on the dotted line comes with certain obligations. These include ensuring transparency in political advertising, closing fake accounts, and demonetising purveyors of disinformation.

Moreover, the signature countries offered their experts’ help to identify channels spreading disinformation.

Ministers in the letter also urged social media companies not to give in to pressure from the Russian government, noting that “these social networks are not only used for propaganda but also are being pressured by the Russian Federation in a way to cooperate with them and to censor the content that Russian citizens receive.”

Lithuania’s prime minister added that “we urged not to block civil society’s members’ accounts or independent media’s accounts if there is any left in the Russian Federation at all”. 

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What has social media done so far

On Friday (25 February), Google tweeted that their “threat intel teams” are continuously looking out for “disrupt ‘disinfo’ campaigns, hacking, and financially motivated abuse, and are working with other companies and relevant government bodies to address these threats”. 

Facebook’s parent company Meta on Saturday (26 February) announced that a special operations centre was established for monitoring the platform “around the clock, allowing us to respond to issues in real-time.”

It was also highlighted that “extensive steps” are taken “to fight the spread of misinformation by expanding our third-party fact-checking capacity in Russian and Ukrainian”. Ads from Russian state media were also prohibited, and their accounts demonetised. 

Not enough

But the actions taken so far leave more to be desired according to Šimonytė. “Although the online platforms have undertaken significant efforts to address the Russian government’s unprecedented assault on truth, they have not done enough”. 

Nick Clegg, president for global affairs at Meta, tweeted on Monday that Meta received “requests from a number of Governments and the EU to take further steps in relation to Russian state-controlled media”.

He added that “Given the exceptional nature of the current situation, we will be restricting access to RT and Sputnik across the EU at this time” and ensured that “we will continue to work closely with Governments on this issue.”

In the meantime, Twitter has labelled Russian state-affiliated news sources, such as RT and Sputnik, and is limiting tweets’ reach. 

The actions come as the European Commission seeks the “best legal way” to ban pro-Russian media outlets RT and Sputnik to stop their “toxic and harmful disinformation in Europe” following Commission President Ursula von der Leyen’s pledge to ban them on Sunday. 

Brussels looks to ban RT, Sputnik from EU over Ukraine disinformation concerns

The European Commission is seeking the “best legal way” to ban pro-Russian media outlets RT and Sputnik to stop their “toxic and harmful disinformation in Europe” following Commission President Ursula von der Leyen’s pledge to ban them on Sunday (27 February).

[Edited by Luca Bertuzzi/ Alice Taylor]

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